Yet after two phone calls with Putin, Biden remained convinced that face-to-face talks were the only adequate venue to truly engage the notoriously truculent leader.
And after more than 40 years spent watching other presidents determine American foreign policy, it was finally his decision to make.
Biden takes the lead role
His determination to meet Putin, even in the face of skepticism, reflects what officials said was a deeply held view that cultivating a personal relationship — even with the most authoritarian of leaders — is the only way to deal bluntly with the major issues currently facing the world. Putin, Biden has told his team, will respond only to strength and honesty.
“There is never any substitute for leader-to-leader engagement, particularly for complex relationships, but with Putin this is exponentially the case,” Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said this week.
“He has a highly personalized style of decision making and so it is important for President Biden to be able to sit down with him face to face, to be clear about where we are, to understand where he is, to try to manage our differences, and to identify those areas where we can work in America’s interests to make progress.”
In Biden’s view, the stakes of his first trip abroad are nothing less than democracy itself. A highly symbolic choreography will take him from a Group of 7 meeting on the Cornish coast in England to a summit with NATO allies in Brussels, Belgium, before concluding with the Putin summit in Geneva, Switzerland, whose lakeside hosted the first talks between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev 36 years ago.
Asked before his departure what his goals for the trip were, Biden told reporters: “Making clear to Putin and to China that Europe and the United States are tight and the G7 is gonna move.”
Biden will also seek to reassure allies about America’s role in the distribution of the coronavirus vaccine.
The President is expected to make a major announcement related to global production while at the G-7 summit Thursday, according to two people. In a sign of the role the pandemic will play in Biden’s first trip, he is bringing along one of his top coronavirus advisers, Jeff Zients.
As he left Joint Base Andrews, Biden said he has a vaccine strategy for the world that he will be announcing, but did not offer specifics.
Yet skepticism abounds among Europeans that another president, potentially Trump himself, could reverse anything Biden does or says. He also will confront new tensions toward the US that are running high in the wake of the pandemic, after only slowly starting to share vaccines with the world.
“The trans-Atlantic alliance is back,” Biden told allies in a speech shortly after taking office. “And we are not looking backward. We are looking forward, together.”
When Biden was vice president, he traveled to more than 50 countries; the 1.2 million air miles he logged would have taken him around the Earth’s circumference 48 times. He became so well-known at the Shannon Airport — an airstrip in western Ireland where American planes often refuel on their westerly return — that staff once organized a special Mass for him on a holy day of obligation.
And though his meeting in Geneva next week with Putin will be their first as equals, it will hardly be Biden’s first encounter with the man he once claimed to have told, inches from his nose, that he had no soul.
Trump’s shadow lingers
As American officials began planning for the summit with Putin, they knew the talks would require the better part of a day. Biden’s two previous phone calls with Putin, described by officials as respectful but candid, stretched out as the two men went back and forth over the long list of diplomatic disputes — often prolonged by Putin’s habit of raising events unfolding in the United States as examples of hypocrisy when challenged on human rights.
“I have been in the room with Putin many times when I was working for President Obama. And whataboutism is always a characteristic of these summit meetings,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s former deputy national security adviser.
“That whataboutism is meant to engender cynicism, that nothing really matters, it’s not worth even challenging this, that everybody’s just as corrupt as everybody else. And I think it’s incumbent on Joe Biden to draw the clear distinctions between what America stands for in the world and what Vladimir Putin has been up to for the better part of over two decades now.”
It’s not clear what the President hopes to gain from the meeting — something that Biden himself acknowledges. When asked by reporters before his departure if he’d be able to work out an understanding with Putin on cyberattacks emanating from Russia, Biden said, “Who knows?”
“It’s going to be a subject of our discussion,” Biden said.
Administration officials also said they were mindful of avoiding any comparisons with Trump, starting with ruling out Helsinki as a location, despite Finland’s offer to host as it did three summers ago. Asked whether Biden planned to meet one-on-one with Putin without any aides present, as Trump did, Sullivan said the details were still being finalized.
“Will the democratic alliances and institutions that shaped so much of the last century prove their capacity against modern-day threats and adversaries?” Biden wrote in a weekend op-ed in The Washington Post. “I believe the answer is yes. And this week in Europe, we have the chance to prove it.”